Imagine how a football team would do if the offensive coordinator never listened to the head coach. Or, how would a baseball team fare if no one paid attention to the third base coach’s signals? Disorganized, disgusted, frustrated – and losing! Now imagine a church, or any level of church structure, in which the leaders are not listening to the people. Do you think that not listening accomplishes anything better in these instances? Of course not. Listening is a critical leadership skill in every type of organization, and perhaps it is even more critical in the church.
Consider how every level of listening applies to how we listen to God and how we listen to others.
Levels of Listening
Ignoring: Nothing says “I don’t care,” “You are not important,” and “Go away!” like being ignored. Ever been ignored? Do you remember how you felt about it? Just don’t do it. But remember, if a person doesn’t hear you it is not ignoring.
Pretending (patronizing): Sometimes we go through the motions of listening, nodding and making eye contact, but we are not focused on what the person is saying. We may hear some of the words but are not really “present” with the other person. That’s pretend listening and it is patronizing, giving the appearance of caring but with an air of superiority or condescension. Often, when we are thinking about what we’re going to say next (or how to prove that we are right or “win” an argument) we are merely pretending to listen.
Selective: Selective listeners only hear the part of the message they are willing to hear. Very often, selective listening is marked by frequent interruptions and finishing the other person’s sentences. It tells the person to “get to the point” because you are only interested in specific information, not them. Selective listening is a great temptation for Christians. We want to listen, but we are unwilling to acknowledge our own agendas and assumptions. Selective listening is used to reinforce our agendas and our assumptions. It does nothing to help us grow or help another person because it only hears what it wants … or what it already believes. Consider the dangers of using selective listening with God. Is there danger in hearing only what we want to hear? Can we agree that selective listening can be, and has been, a source of egregious sin – against God and others?
Attentive/Empathic: Attentive listening is excellent listening. When we listen attentively we are focused on the other person, working to hear everything they are saying, eliminating distractions, and hearing everything they are saying. This is the kind of listening that hears deeper than the words, that “reads between the lines.”
Text Book vs. Love Letter Listening
If we equate reading to listening, would you rather be listened to as a text book or a love letter? Listening is a matter of either utilitarianism or relationship building. When we read a text book we are seeking information. It is purely utilitarian. In fact, we skip many words, focused only on those things that may “be on the test.” It is selective listening with a utilitarian goal – get needed information. When we read a love letter our goal is radically different. We are not only interested in information, we want to get to know the writer, to deepen our love for that person and grow closer. This is listening for relational purposes, and equated to attentive and empathetic levels of listening. Leaders must manage both utilitarian listening and relational listening. Accurate information is necessary to lead well, but if it is gained at the cost of relationship – through selective or patronizing listening – then we have undermined our ability to lead well because leadership is accomplished first and foremost through growing relationships. Exceptional leaders know when to and how to prioritize empathetic listening versus attentive listening. Relationship trumps information. We listen to truly know and understand another person, their needs and wants, to understand what is truly beneficial and harmful to them. Perhaps most important is that people trust those who truly listen to them. Leaders develop trust through attentive and empathic listening.
As mentioned above, the levels of listening apply to both God and others. We listen to God to know and understand what we can of Him, his purposes and our part in them. We also listen to God to know and understand ourselves, our strengths, weaknesses, assumptions, predispositions, and what to do about them. In short, we cannot know ourselves, or others, well unless we know God. One of Calvin’s best thoughts is the double knowledge of God and self. We must know God to know self, and self to know God. This truth transfers to listening; we must listen to God if we are to listen well to ourselves and others, and vice versa. Leaders seek to listen attentively to both God and others in every situation. Yes, perfection won’t be achieved in this life. But we can, and must, work to improve our listening for our sake and the benefit of those we lead. No leader will excel without a consistent, intentional, well-developed approach to listening to God and others. Here are six key points to remember:
- We tend to listen to God in the same way we listen to others.
- The way we listen will either increase or decrease the level of trust with others.
- We cannot be excellent leaders without high levels of trust from people we lead.
- We cannot ask excellent questions without being excellent listeners.
- If we cannot ask excellent questions we cannot be excellent leaders.
- We can honor God and others in how we listen, or not. It’s our choice.